And though one holiday crisis appears to have been averted, a fresh surge of cargo from Chinese manufacturers is expected to flood U.S. ports before Chinese businesses close up to celebrate the year of the tiger starting Feb 1.
Local lawmakers and port officials accompanying U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg at the Port of Long Beach on Tuesday acknowledged enduring problems with the shipping, unloading and delivery of goods across the country, including the challenge of getting the local ports — a major chokepoint — to operate around-the-clock.
The wave of cargo ships carrying goods to U.S. consumers is expected to reach California in the next two or three weeks, port officials said.
On Tuesday, as Buttigieg praised local officials for moves that eased bottlenecks around the holiday period, 60 cargo ships idled offshore near the Long Beach port, waiting for their turn to dock.
“No one is taking a victory lap,” he said in an interview. “No one is high-fiving each other.”
The supply-chain crisis is not over, Gene Seroka, executive director of the Port of Los Angeles, said while touring the Long Beach port with Buttigieg.
A key hurdle: Officials have been unable to get the Los Angeles port to operate around-the-clock, as planned and announced in October under a Biden administration strategy to address the supply-chain crisis ahead of the holiday period.
Under the plan, the port expects to nearly double the number of hours that cargo moves off container ships and onto highways by having crews work through the night, with members of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union filling the extra shifts.
But Seroka said the effort has been hampered because most elements of the supply chain — including warehouse operators and truck drivers — don’t operate 24 hours a day, making it difficult to accept cargo at the ports in the middle of the night when workers aren’t available to receive the products. Making matters worse, he said, is a shortage of truck drivers and warehouse workers since the start of the pandemic. “It’s the private sector that needs to drive this,” he said.
Buttigieg also acknowledged more work was needed to resolve the supply-chain problem. In an interview with The Times, he said the ports needed more funding to modernize their facilities and adjacent rail lines and roads to ease bottlenecks during the next cargo surge.
“We’ve got to be ready for the unexpected,” he said. Buttigieg visited the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach for an update on remedies to the supply-chain problem, which stemmed from COVID-19 outbreaks that forced the closure of many manufacturers and ports in Asia that were later slow to ramp back up to meet rebounding U.S. demand.
Buttigieg’s visit caps off a series of efforts to easy the supply-chain backlog. Officials at the ports started Nov. 15 to impose a fee on containers that sit around for more than six days if intended for rail transport or nine days if intended for trucks. The ocean carrier companies that brought in those idling containers face fines of $100 on the first day past deadline, $200 on the next and so on.
Together the two sprawling ports are responsible for handling nearly half of all imports into the United States, making them a key part of logistical networks strained by the coronavirus crisis. Once goods began to arrive by sea at a record pace, the ports were inundated and unable to unload and distribute cargo fast enough. The Biden administration, port officials and others took several steps to ease the backlog, including imposing fines on shippers who left cargo containers clogging the docks and devising a plan to operate the ports 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
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